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Teaching English to Young Learners: Anger in our Classrooms

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English language teaching, Classroom Management and the Effects of Anger on Our Learners

Teaching English to Young Learners: Anger in our Classrooms

English language teaching, Classroom Management and the Effects of Anger on Our Learners

Reflecting on Anger and Classroom Management when teaching English to Young Learners

At my age, a lot of memories of being seven-and-a-half have been pruned or locked away. But this memory of being told off at Halloween has always stuck. Why should that be? In this article we look at the effects of anger and telling off on our brains. If we want to practise good classroom management when teaching English to Young Learners and develop a rapport with our learners that is good for both learning and well-being, we need to seriously rethink the effect our actions have.

First, an activity. Let’s try out an exercise that psychologist Dan Siegal likes to do with groups. It aims to get us reflecting on how we manage ourselves and how we react to others. Try it with your friends, colleagues, family or your class, as a way of understanding your own brain and its different reactions.

The Activity:

You Say: “Close your eyes. Be still and listen.”

Now say emphatically and with strength these words, pausing between them:


Then pause and gently say, again pausing between each word:

“Yes………..Yes. ………..Yes………….  Yes. ……….. Yes…………..Yes”

Follow with these instructions:

“Take a deep breath. Take your left hand and put it on your chest and the other on the abdomen. Apply some gentle pressure. Now swap hands, your right hand on your chest and your left on your abdomen. How does that feel? Now put your hands in a position where they feel most comfortable and you feel most comforted. Breathe.....Sense the breath.....Take a last deep breath, blowing out through the mouth....What did you feel?”

Neuroscience and the Reactive State: Our Reactions to "No!"

It’s likely that the feedback that you’ll get about hearing the word “No” will include words like: Tight, scary, angry, hurtful, rejecting, frustrating, restriction, painful, shaming, annoying. My six year old daughter informed me it made her think "Please, I won't do it again mama". Wow. Poor thing. It really got me thinking about how often I might say "no" and "don't" to her, on top of the rules she is constantly governed by in her class each day.

In part, Siegal explains, when you get told off or shouted at, you are activating a threat state - a reactive state governed by the brain stem. Consider how this might affect a learner, or yourself for that matter, if this is happening frequently.

The brain stem is a 300,000,000 year-old brain. It’s often referred to as the lizard brain. It regulates bodily functions and fight, flight, freeze or faint reactions. These reactive states are the basis of stress. Our reptilian brain includes the main structures found in a reptile's brain: the brain stem and the cerebellum. It's reliable and there to protect us. Stress makes us run faster, or freeze and fake death so something won't consume us. But it isn't flexible and can cause us trouble.

For example, in a situation like I had as a child of being told off for my dud Halloween trick, the “no” brain state made me feel inadequate, shamed, a little scared and I definitely froze. And the memory of that shame has stuck there for forty years!

How Can We Improve the Experience of Teaching English to Young Learners?

You don't want to be known as the teacher who you could hear halfway down the corridor shouting your students into submission. Remember the state of fight/fight/freeze or faint? Well, it puts our body into a reaction where blood flows away from our extremities to protect our internal organs. Our hands feel cold and don’t function well. The back of our head feels prickly (blood is flowing to the back of our brain too). Fear is triggered. Aggression too. But sadly, not reason. This is the effect that ranting and shouting can have on a learner.

The first thing we need to do is to think about strategies for managing people where shouting and anger isn't needed. We also need to have strategies for when we've lost control and want to get ourselves and our class back on track. I write this article painfully aware that I became that shouting teacher more than once. I was teaching pre-teens and had no idea what I was doing. There was little support and only now that I have more experience with YLs and have woken up to the neuroscience that I can see what I was creating. We're humans. We lose control. We must forgive ourselves and get back on course.

We talk about this in more detail in our Young Learners course Module on Classroom Management and we delve further into this with our Teaching Pre-Teens & Teens Effectively in the English Language Classroom module.

Help learners (or ourselves) self-calm and move through emotions:

Here are some ways we can help ourselves and others move from a state of stress to being calm again.

  • Placing our hands on our gut area and heart helps calm us down.
  • Sitting and placing our hands on our thighs and our feet on the floor with deep low breathing. Focusing our thoughts on our hands and our feet -feeling the floor - can help reverse the flow of blood away from our extremities.
  • Placing our hand on our forehead draws our attention away from the old brain toward our newer brain - the prefrontal cortex nestled there behind our forehead. The prefrontal cortex plays an enormous role in regulating our actions and emotions.

Teaching Mental State Language to Young Learners:

Mental State Language is where we feed children words to describe how they are feeling. A child might fall, hurt themselves and have an emotion or two or three. Mental state language includes phrases like “that must feel scary seeing that blood.”, “that hurt, didn’t it?”, or “that gave you a fright, didn’t it?”. The language shows the child that it’s OK to have the feelings, that these feelings are known by someone other than the child and that the feelings have names. As language teachers, the lexis of mental states should form part of our teaching.

In contrast, if a child falls over and the parent simply shouts “Come on, get up!”, or the parent panics and gets as distressed as the child, then there is no reflective dialogue. The parent or carer doesn't help children understand their emotional state and how to move through it. Worse still, the child might bury their emotions to avoid the parents reacting in certain ways, which is called miscuing. Children do this in order to protect the distressed parent.

Secure attachment theory and research see this as being unhelpful to our emotional growth and our ability to regulate ourselves. Being emotional with children and young adolescents is an important thing for parents and teachers to do. We need to be the stronger and wiser adult who guides children and adolescents through stormy states. We shouldn't be the one who loses control.

Creating a Receptive Learning Environment: Our Reactions to "Yes."

We want a positive learning environment in our English language classrooms. So, we need to consider how we affect that with shouting, dressing down and telling off. Consider how your colleagues felt when they heard the word "yes".

Reactions to “Yes” could include: comforting, soothing, accepting, relaxing, empowering, warm, loving, open, affirming, relief, freeing, calming. “Yes” brain statements, Siegal argues, encourage a receptive brain. This is the limbic area which can help regulate our feelings and reactions.

As English teachers, we need to rethink how we manage situations, beginning with ourselves. Activating a fear state in our learners can make us feel powerful, but it isn’t a receptive state for learning. Do we really want to trigger that? Do we want to be remembered as the person who caused children to feel fear and shame? I hope not.

Other Articles on Classroom Management

Post CELTA: Managing the Young Learner Classroom

Classroom Management: Getting the Buggers to Behave, by Sue Cowley

Teaching English to Young Learners: become an expert! Enrol and try for yourself with our free Pre-Teens course below